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Customs and Culture >
What do Muslims say about women's rights?

No one should be complacent about the condition of women in many Muslim (and many Western) societies. Americans certainly are not. When asked the open-ended question “What do you admire least about the Muslim or Islamic world?” among the top responses is “gender inequality,” associated with veiling, female segregation, illiteracy, and powerlessness. Patriarchy and its legacy, legitimated in the name of religion, remain alive in various Muslim countries, although also being challenged on many levels.

The realities of women in the Arab and Muslim worlds present a complex picture of individuals in different situations and varied social contexts. Many are unfairly subject to powerful forces of patriarchy and religion, but significant numbers of other women are far more empowered and respected in their own cultures than blanket stereotypes might lead us to believe. The status and roles of women in the Muslim world vary considerably, influenced as much by literacy, education, and economic development as by religion. Men and women in Muslim societies grapple with many gender issues, ranging from the extent of women's education and employment to women's role in the family and the nature of their religious leadership and authority in Islam.

Today Islamic scholars and activists, men and women representing many ideological orientations, are increasingly speaking out. They are empowering themselves not just as defenders of women's rights but also as interpreters of the Islamic tradition. Many argue that patriarchy as much as religion, or patriarchy linked to religion, accounts for customs that became long-standing traditions affecting gender relations and women's status in society.

When it comes to popular Muslim attitudes about women's rights, the facts are not always what one might expect. As the 2007 Gallup World Poll reveals, majorities of Muslims, some in the most conservative Muslim societies, support women's equal rights. Majorities in virtually every country surveyed say women should have the same legal rights as men to serve in the highest levels of government. In addition, majorities of both men and women in dozens of Muslim countries around the world (61 percent of Saudis, 85 percent of Iranians, and nearly 90 percent in Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Lebanon) say that men and women should have the same legal rights. Majorities also support a woman's right to work outside the home in any job for which a woman qualifies (90 percent in Malaysia, 86 percent in Turkey, 85 percent in Egypt, and 69 percent in Saudi Arabia) and a woman's right to vote without interference from family members (80 percent in Indonesia, 89 percent in Iran, 67 percent in Pakistan, 90 percent in Bangladesh, 76 percent in Jordan, 93 percent in Turkey, and 56 percent in Saudi Arabia).

At the same time, the complexities surrounding women's status are illustrated by country-specific contradictions:

• Women in Egypt today have access to the best education and hold responsible professional positions in virtually every sector. Yet, like women in most Muslim societies, until recently they needed a male family member's permission to travel.

• While women cannot vote in Saudi Arabia, in almost every other Muslim country, women do vote. They also run for political office and serve in many parliaments. A woman has been a head of state or vice president in Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Indonesia, and Bangladesh.

• Saudi women own 70 percent of the savings in Saudi banks and own 61 percent of private firms in the kingdom; they own much of the real estate in Riyadh and Jeddah and can own and manage their own businesses. Yet they are sexually segregated, restricted to “appropriate” professions, and forbidden to drive a car.

• In nearby Kuwait, women freely function in society and hold responsible positions in many areas, but until only a few years ago they could not vote.

• In Afghanistan and in some areas of Pakistan, the Taliban, in the name of Islam, has forced professional women to give up their jobs and prohibited girls from attending school.

• In Iran, where women must cover their hair and wear long-sleeved, ankle-length outfits in public, they constitute the majority of university students, hold many professional positions, and serve in parliament. A woman is one of the vice presidents in this Islamic republic.

• In modern-day Egypt, women could not until recently serve as judges, but in Morocco, more than 20 percent of judges are women.

Both the causes of women's lack of empowerment and inequality and the winds of change can be seen in women's basic literacy and education. In Yemen, women's literacy is only 28 percent vs. 70 percent for men; in Pakistan, it is 28 percent vs. 53 percent for men. Percentages of women pursuing postsecondary educations dip as low as 8 percent and 13 percent in Morocco and Pakistan respectively (comparable to 3.7 percent in Brazil, or 11 percent in the Czech Republic).

In sharp contrast, women's literacy rates in Iran and Saudi Arabia are 70 percent and as high as 85 percent in Jordan and Malaysia. In education, significant percentages of women in Iran (52 percent), Egypt (34 percent), Saudi Arabia (32 percent), and Lebanon (37 percent) have postsecondary educations. In the UAE, as in Iran, the majority of university students are women.

In many Muslim countries and communities today, women lead and participate in Quran study groups, run mosque-based educational and social services, and are religious scholars and even muftis. The growing empowerment of women is reflected in increased educational and professional opportunities (to become physicians, journalists, lawyers, engineers, social workers, university professors, and entrepreneurs), as well as in legal reforms and voting rights.

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